#38: “Sophie” Speaks–Art from Mary Sibande

Part of the “Sophie” collection by Mary Sibande

My work also looks at the ideals of beauty and femininity represented by examples of privileged members of society, and the aspirations of the less fortunate women to be like them. – Mary Sibande (source)

South African artist Mary Sibande is not a steampunk, but her work is reflective of the forms of creative play that many participants of the steampunk community engage in. Her work, influenced by Yinka Shonibare MBE and Kara Walker, speaks to the imaginative ideal where the working class seeks refuge in the psycho-drama of “Victoriana make-believe.”

By investigating the role of the South African women in today’s post-apartheid society, Sibande reveals the schism between what society had aspired to–in part influenced by its British colonialist past–and the social and economic realities for many of its citizens, particularly in the disempowerment of black South African women.

In creating these statues of Sophie, Sibande cast her own body in these poses and designed and constructed Victorian-inspired dresses out materials used in everyday domestic uniforms. In assuming the role of the domestic worker, Sibande throws out her own privileged identity to shed light on the structures of of class and race that still exist; as Mary Corrigall explains in her anaylsis of Sibande’s work:

Sibande isn’t challenging or rejecting her affluence – it is her confidence in her status that allows her to parade as a domestic worker. The domestic worker is a mask, like any other she can slip on and off at will. The ease with which she is able to do this implies that no one is defined by their appearance. In assuming the guise of this highly politicised character, Sibande is able to explore, ridicule and subvert the structures that victimised the domestic worker. It’s a cathartic and subversive act.

While steampunks may not intend to subvert their own privileged or unprivileged identities with the personas they create, the illusion of the “upper class” of steampunks that exists in the community — self-proclaimed professors, doctors, generals, scientists and aristocrats — contrasts with the mostly mundane professions and lives of its participants. What it interested to observe in the community, however, is how much a steampunk persona betrays or aligns with a person’s true identity (after all, I do know many real life professors, doctors, and scientists who very much enjoy role playing their idealized version of their everyday jobs!) Nevertheless, the role of creative play and its use in the community can be used as a focal point when analyzing steampunk subculture and its aesthetics.

Part of the “Sophie” collection by Mary Sibande

Linkspam:

Mary Sibande on Gallery Momo

Mary Corrigall’s analysis on Mary Sibande’s Sophie collection

Mary Sibande on Elle Decoration

Share

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under Essays

5 responses to “#38: “Sophie” Speaks–Art from Mary Sibande

  1. Pingback: Africa Day 2009 – The Malawian chart-topper Kenny Gilmore. | Mobile PhotoJournal

  2. Interesting, I’d like to know more about your statement:

    “While steampunks may not intend to subvert their own privileged or unprivileged identities with the personas they create, the illusion of the “upper class” of steampunks that exists in the community — self-proclaimed professors, doctors, generals, scientists and aristocrats — contrasts with the mostly mundane professions and lives of its participants.”

    When contrasted against those who adopt more of the Punk aspects – those whose personae are the downtrodden, the make-dos and the have-not-will-scroungers. My experience in clubs has resulted in a quite a split between the two and doesn’t appear to follow any “reality” based affluence or inherited lines.

    I do like the artist’s concept of “Victoriana make-believe”, I think that’s a major keystone of the movement; and arguably you could make that statement of any period of idolizing your… err.. idols. The Hollywood Star Scenario being the new ruling class of the age?

    • I’d argue that while there IS a make-believe aspect and one can dress however they like and into whatever persona they choose…there’s still a distinct IRL class breakdown of which outfits one is able to construct. This is probably tangential to the original point of choosing a role that aligns or betrays one’s IRL career and lifestyle, but it is still a distinct factor – if you literally cannot afford to acquire a lavish ball gown to wear to a club or event, then characters who would wear lavish ball gowns are rather off your playable list in real spaces (Online is a completely different ballgame)

      • @Prof von Explaino: I think the wish fulfillment aspect falls in line with the wish of “acting out” a role that either highlights or downplays a real-life identity. I can also see role-play working either way to confirm or deny personal identities: ex. retail worker playing a baron or a privileged finance broker pretending to be a hobo–aka the Prince & the Pauper dynamic. Or in another example, a scientist playing a mad scientist in a self-identifying/idealizing role.

        This fluid concept of identity is why I find Sibande’s work so engaging: she knows she is putting on a role by playing the domestic worker just as much as a steampunk recognizes that they play a role whether they are a baron or a street urchin. In Sibande’s case, though, race and gender complicates the viewer’s interpretation of her outfit because it plays upon the stereotype of the domestic worker of color. Someone could easily view this statue and think it was based off an underprivileged real life model and not Sibande herself.

        Personally, I’d love to see steampunk artists/photographers create some sort of work that talks about how steampunk uses the wish-fulfillment dynamic…

        @Moniquill: YES. I do agree that the community does have actual class differences that come up with how much one is able to afford/construct (and by extension, go to cons & steampunk meet-ups).

        When someone posts a steampunk picture, however, it’s hard to tell where the class differences reveal themselves. Like how someone who chooses to use junk styles could prefer doing steampunk that way. Or if a person saved for a year to actually get that dress she’s wearing.

        On an tangential note, though, I do have to say that when it comes to mainstream media focus/ focus in the community, it usually highlights participants who are able to look/afford to look the most extravagant.

  3. Pingback: #46 Celebrating Our First Birthday! « Beyond Victoriana